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Two tales about the search for talent

As a follow up to Saturday’s review of Leadership Solutions, two quick stories.

A college prof just organized an event for students to mix and mingle with recent grads and employers. One of the employers came to the event with 150 jobs that can’t be filled. Not enough qualified candidates and too much competition.

At the same time, four colleges have joined forces to help a major employer in Ontario with major workforce planning issues (more details soon). Somewhere in the neighbourhood of 50% of the workforce will be retiring in the near future. Replacing those employees will be a priority for the employer, which plays a pivital role in the economic growth and prosperity of the province.

Whoever comes up with a quick and easy way to solve workplace planning and staffing issues and builds a talent pipeline will do very, very well for themselves.

Book review: Functional Frank vs. Holistic Holly

Leadership Solutions: The Pathways to Bridge the Leadership Gap

By David Weiss, Vince Molinaro and Liane Davey

John Wiley & Sons, $41.99

"People speak very highly of you," says your colleague. That’s nice, you think.

"Everyone says you have loads of potential," adds your colleague. Also nice but then there’s a pause. A long, uncomfortable pause.

"So exactly how old are you" asks your colleague. Only it’s less a question and more a tactful way of telling you to get your act together. To grow up, step up and take charge. Be a leader. Potential only gets you so far. At some point, you have to deliver the goods. You don’t want to be the Peter Pan of the workplace.

"Thanks for the reality check," you say, although you’ve yet to cash the cheque. You’re still debating whether to start stoking your leadership fires. Do you really have the drive and the desire to lead at work?

Turns out you’re not alone in your ambivalence. And that’s bad news for employers that are hard up against growing leadership gaps.

"As the baby boomer generation begins to reach their 60s, organizations will face an unprecedented rate of retirements from the leadership ranks," say authors and consultants David Weiss, Vince Molinaro and Liane Davey. "Not only are there fewer Generation X employees to take their places, but many of these Gen Xers might be unwilling to accept the mantle of leadership."

Take the example of a high-tech firm that spent a lot of time and money to come up with a shortlist of 30 high-potential leadership candidates. The company was excited. The top 30 was less so.

The chosen few didn’t appreciate being tagged with the high-potential label. And they weren’t keen on going through the much-touted and exclusive accelerated leadership training program.

Instead of being an honour, it felt like a burden and a sure path to a whole lot of extra, mind-numbing work that they weren’t passionate about doing.

So why are the boomers’ heir apparents apparently not interested? The easy answer is work-life balance. We’ve watched our stressed-out bosses grind through 14-hour days and nights jammed with meetings, politicking and firefighting.

Or maybe we’re terrified of morphing into Functional Frank. We’ve all worked for a Frank. These leaders lean heavily on their functional expertise and ruthlessly defend their fiefdoms with blinders squarely on. They have all the answers and don’t want to hear any questions. They practice traditional command-and-control leadership, the kind of leadership that most Gen Xers have endured throughout their careers.

But Gen Xers just might fill the leadership gap if we had a shot at becoming a Holistic Holly. This a leader who’s big on collaboration, communication and consensus-building. Who sees the big picture and parks her ego to further the greater good of the whole organization. Who inspires instead of mires the folks around her. Instead of a competent functional manager, she’s a great leader for the entire organization who gets great results.

We know Holistic Holly well because we’ve all gone on forced marches to leadership boot camp. Deep in the heart of cottage country, we’ve climbed poles. Swung from ropes. Done role-playing and team-building, self-affirmations and self-reflections. All of which is intended to transform us into Hollys-in-waiting.

But we’re skeptical about whether Holly could survive back at the office and for good reason.

"Organizations send their leaders off to inspiring, life-altering training programs; then they return to an organization that does not support them in applying the skills they have learned," say the authors. "The often costly investment in training provides little return, and the employees are left feeling they will never have the kind of leadership they are looking for. The programs do not demonstrate long-term results."

Here’s why. Personal leadership development’s not enough. Employers also need to do an extreme makeover on their culture and organizational structures from performance management to business planning and budgeting. We may set out bound and determined to be Holly Holistic but all of the workplace policies, procedures, practices and processes, along with the unspoken cultural norms and rules that taken together reinforce functional leadership and swiftly pull and push us over to the dark side.

Shipping us off to leadership retreats and workshops is easy. Changing how an organization works, what it believes and what it values and rewards is not so easy.

Yet doing all three is the only way to build leadership capacity, according to the authors. And given the demographic shifts, the pace of change and the scope of challenges coming our way, capacity building is mission critical.

"The competition has neutralized standard competitive advantages of operational excellence, produce innovation and customer intimacy. The new competitive frontier has shifted to people — but not the oversimplified view of people as the organization’s most important asset — which few really believed and even fewer acted on. Rather, the competitive frontier of people is specifically focused on leadership, what leaders do, how the organization fosters leadership talents and how organizations reinforce their leadership culture."

The good news is the authors share what they know around building leadership capacity and creating organizations where Gen Xers will find and embrace their inner Holly.

Book review: Turning knowing into doing

Know Can Do! Put Your Know-How into Action

By Ken Blanchard, Paul Meyer and Dick Ruhe

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

($23.95)

I went to a conference in Chicago this summer and here’s what I learned.

Mr. Beef makes a truly inspired Italian beef sandwich. Just skip the small talk that seems to annoy the tough guy working the register and the out-the-door lunchtime crowd piled up behind you.

Carson’s makes the world’s best ribs so humour the old school wait staff and put on the plastic bib.

American Girl is like Vegas for scary soccer moms who’ve never surrendered their beauty queen aspirations.

On a windy day, don’t stand at the bow of the boat during the lake portion of the lake and river cruise.

Millennium Park and the path that winds for miles along the south shore of Lake Michigan offer a glimpse of what’s possible in Hamilton if we ever get our act together and somehow convince Oprah, Mayor Richard Daley and a dozen old money families and corporate head offices to relocate to Steeltown.

As for the conference itself, I’m a little hazy on the specifics.

Somewhere in my office there’s a binder with PowerPoint slides, handouts and notes scribbled in margins. No doubt there’s lots of really useful information to be exhumed for future reference.

And it’s not just the conference that draws blanks. Go ahead and ask about any of the business books I’ve read and reviewed in the past eight years. No clue what to tell you. Same goes for the never diminishing stacks of Fortune, Fast Company and Harvard Business Review magazines that I read religiously at work and home.

Lots of information going in. Not so much sticking around and taking root in my cranium.

Author Ken Blanchard runs up against the same conundrum. Lots of folks tell him they love his books. When Blanchard asks how any one of his concepts has changed their lives at work, his fans quickly change topics.

"While my books were widely read, many people did not follow through on the concepts and use them consistently in their day-to-day work," says Blanchard. "My concern was that some managers seemed to be content merely to talk about leadership practices, rather than actually implementing them."

So the author who seems to write a book a week called on behaviour change guru Paul Meyer and motivational speaker Dick Ruhe to help crack the code for closing the knowledge-doing gap.

Seems there are three reasons why we can’t or won’t learn new tricks.

Information overload is a common trap. We’re forever overdosing on knowledge and getting ourselves immobilized. We also suffer from negative filtering, or what the authors call "stinkin’ thinking". When we learn something positive, we put it down or discount it. Lack of follow-up is the final reason we can’t close the knowledge-doing gap.

The key to dealing with information overload, negative filtering and lack of follow-up? Repetition, repetition, repetition. Or to be more specific, spaced repetition which is also better known in some circles as behavioural conditioning or internal reinforcement. Whatever you call it, it’s about being exposed to the same information periodically over time until it finally takes hold.

"People should learn less more and not more less," say the authors. "To master something, we should focus on a few key concepts, repeat them over time, immerse ourselves deeply in them, and expand on the ideas and skills."

Listening with an open and positive mindset will help us retain more of what we learn. "Seeds planted on good soil produce many times what is sown," says Blanchard et al. Become a possibility thinker and an inverted paranoid who thinks the world has conspired to do only good for you.

As for follow-up, the authors recommend the five-step feedback loop of tell me, show me, let me, observe me and then praise my progress and/or redirect me.

Look at anyone in your organization who gets the job done and you’ll find the golden child who’s learned how to focus. "There is a golden thread that runs through the life of every high achiever. It is the golden thread of focus, backed by persistence. Every person of extraordinary accomplishment has the ability to focus on a target with laserlike intensity, staying on course to achieve the goal."

So maybe it’s a good idea to go easy on your diet of business books. Skip a few webinars and teleconferences. Buy fewer magazines. And take a pass on the next out-of-town conference that comes your way, unless of course it’s in Chicago and there’s a killer lineup of guest speakers and enough downtime to pay a visit to Mr. Beef and Carson’s and see the sights with a spouse who’s more than deserving of a mini-vacation.

Jay Robb is a Hamilton freelance writer who blogs at jayrobb.typepad.com.